How to climate-proof the Ethiopian breadbasket? Combine genomics and farmer knowledge

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Durum wheat is an important staple crop and part of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage. Its genetic diversity also holds clues for climate smart agriculture, according to a collaboration between researchers and farmer citizen scientists.

Diverse wheat matters

Ethiopia is one of Africa’s major wheat producing countries. But it might surprise you to learn that conventional bread wheat (Triticum aestivum, the most common species produced worldwide) only entered the country in the 1940s. For the previous 5000 years, Ethiopian agriculture had counted on a myriad of durum wheat varieties (Triticum turgidum ssp. durum, the closely related species ideal for making pasta), which are still consumed in many ways. “Durum wheat is culturally important in Ethiopia to make malt for local beer ‘tella’, homemade bread (‘difo dabo’), ‘kitta’ (unleavened bread), ‘nifro’ (boiled whole grain), ‘kollo’ (roasted whole grain mainly used as a snack), and ‘Kinche’, a form of porridge,” explains Cherinet Alem Gesesse, a plant geneticist from the Amhara Regional Agricultural Research Institute (ARARI).

Beyond their cultural significance, this agrobiodiversity has significant implications for the future of agriculture. “Having evolved under natural and artificial selection for thousands of years, these varieties are very well adapted to Ethiopia’s climate and soils,” says Carlo Fadda, Principal Scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. “They are resilient to climate change and important assets for future production.”

Already grappling with drought and soil degradation, Ethiopian farmers know that they cannot rely on a single type of wheat, bred solely with productivity in mind. Matteo Dell’Acqua, a plant geneticist from the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, has been working with Ethiopian farmers to devise new ways to permanently integrate their knowledge in the agricultural innovation process. He says that farmers are searching at the varietal level for useful traits:

“Farmers look at what they see in their own fields, which may be different from breeding programs’ expectations due to specific environmental, cultural and management conditions. They select varieties with better adaptation to local uses and cropping.”

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